What impression do these shoes give? They are worn, they are old, they are torn, they have holes, they are covered in dirt. At first glance these shoes look like they have a sad story. Yet, these shoes belonged to someone. These shoes carry much more than the places they have been. These are the shoes that brought a student to Vancouver Island University. These shoes tell us a story.
As the Peer Support Navigator for Vancouver Island University’s Post-Care tuition waiver program, I first came across the student wearing these shoes in September 2017. They were seeking support to find resources to locate housing. They had been camping for the first week of fall semester. This student had only the clothes on their back and a bag of items to their name. This student shares a lived experience in government care, also known as foster care. This student was wearing these shoes when they stepped foot on campus at VIU this fall. This student has been disconnected from their family, spent time in government care and aged out at 19. They had to relocate, leave their community, their cultural connections, and everyone they knew to be able to pursue their education.
However, this student was accepted to their program of study and managed to stay on top of their studies even while experiencing homelessness. Despite having worn these shoes, this student is fiercely dedicated to breaking cycles of poverty. Despite having worn these shoes, this student is present, focused, and determined to work towards their educational goals. This student, despite having worn these shoes, was not afraid to ask for support. Despite having worn these shoes, risked facing potential stigma, denial, and marginalization in order to advocate for themselves. They are now thriving in their area of study despite having worn these shoes when they walked out of a Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). These shoes tell the story of resilience.
This is just one of the many pairs of shoes, and diverse narratives people with lived experience in government care can have. This storyline shares many similarities, some unfortunately too familiar. In 2015, there were over 8000 children and youth in care in British Columbia. In 2015 61% of children and youth in care identified as Indigenous, resembling historical practices of assimilation. How does this disproportionate rate of children and youth in and from care contribute to the outcomes of care? Reasons for entering care, such as abuse or neglect are often continuously experienced in these “safer” placements. A young person I work with once said, “ I didn’t always find care safer than home”. What does that tell us about MCFD’s system of “care”? As 1 in 5 children are currently living in poverty in BC, children and youth are often removed from their parents for reasons connected to poverty.
Recent research from advocacy initiatives Fostering Change and First Call: BC’s Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition shows us that people with lived experience in care face many barriers. Statistics say they are 200 times more likely to be homeless than their peers. BC’s Representative for Child and Youth’s most recent report: Room for Improvement: Toward Better Educational Outcomes for Children in care indicated that 47% youth in and from care graduate high school, which is at a half the rate of their peers. People with lived experience in care are also more likely to experience incarceration, unemployment, substance use, and mental health illness upon ageing out.
We can conclude that many of these outcomes are largely related to the effects poverty, which is one of the main reasons young people enter care. Once they hit the age 19 these young people often return to situations where poverty is prevalent. Where do the narratives have an opportunity to change? This onus of adverse outcome trajectory is not on the people leaving the care system. Externalizing the problem from these individuals allows identifying that these adverse outcomes of experiencing care reflect the subsequent outcomes from a siloed system structure who are legally deemed the parents until they left on their own at 19 to navigate post-care.
The outcome of experiencing care has the potential to lead to adversity, but it is not the only future people with lived experience in care can have. People with lived experience in care have the potential to graduate high school, go to university, and become whatever they choose to be. We know this because it is already happening in our community, and at VIU.
In 2013, VIU accepted the challenge from British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth former rep Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to provide free tuition for people with lived experience in government care. The program started out at the first university in BC to provide this support and began with 13 students. Fast forward to 2017 and VIU has now supported 142 students in accessing postsecondary education. 27 students have graduated from their studies to date. This was created because VIU wanted to provide equitable opportunities to individuals to demonstrate their resilience and because VIU believes in low barrier education, as well as the capacity of people in and from government care. Students are academically accepted to their area of study to begin accessing the support from VIU, meaning they get in on their own steam.
VIU also supports students to access prerequisite for academic programs too. This is just one of the many social justice innovations that hold spaces for people with lived experiences in care to be resilient, heal, learn, and thrive. VIU is also the first tuition waiver program for people with lived experience in care, that has expanded services and hiring the first Peer Support Navigator to support students navigate post-care and post-secondary. VIU’s Post-Care Tuition Waiver Program would not be possible without the students’ bravery, determination, resilience.
And so, what impression do these shoes give you now? What stories do these shoes tell us? They show us the potential narratives and identities people with lived experience in care wear when they leave the system. These shoes at a glance, tell us of the diverse complexities and impacts government care can have in the lives of those affected by it. However, I challenge you to take a closer look the next time you see a pair of shoes like these. Maybe shoes like these will now tell us where systems of care can improve. They tell us of our social responsibilities as individuals, community members, fellow students, campus faculty and staff, and advocates. They tell us how we can foster spaces of learning and healing here at VIU. And if anything, these shoes, tell us how people, despite their lived experiences, can continue to move forward, to achieve, to thrive, and to be resilient.